Arts and Culture Conversation about Women and Leadership|#Vision2002AC

The penultimate panel and discussion at Vision 2020 begins in a few minutes. There’s been so much mental stimulation it’s almost hard to imagine more. But, once again, the panelists are top-drawer and will capture everyone’s interest.


  1. Vishakha N. Desai, Ph.D. – President & CEO of Asia Society
  2. Jeri Lynne Johnson – Founder and Music Director of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra
  3. Marsha L. Semmel – Acting Director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services

The moderators are Jane Eisner, the Editor of The Jewish Daily Forward, and Rosalyn McPherson, President and Founder of The ROZ Group, Inc.

Moderator – What obstacles did you have in the Arts and Culture field?

Vishakha N. Desai, Ph.D. – I’ve been a musical director with a seasoned career. When it came time to be president of the Asia Society the board said I needed to get a background in research. I would be the  first Asian to head Asian Society and my background was arts and culture but not good enough because of not having a background in policy. Eventually, I got the job but there was an initial resistance.

Jeri Lynne Johnson -In 2005 I won a Conducting Fellowship where I was learning, as well as interviewing for jobs. Time after time I wasn’t hired. I finally asked _ What could I do differently? One brave board member said ” Well the board loved you but we weren’t sure how to market you. Yu don’t look like what our constituents expect in a conductor.” (female and black) My skill did not matter. That exchange prompted me to create my own orchestra and prompted me to help others in their development.

Marsha L. Semmel – At age 13 I was living in Detroit, I lacked confidence and was offered a chance in the arts and culture field that would take me across town and I didn’t want to go because I would be only female. I didn’t want to stand-out but my mother pushed me to do it to be a role model and accept a wonderful opportunity. Doing it helped my curiosity and creativity.

Tell us what is going on for women now in the Arts and Culture field that you work?

Semmel – As I see it, in the Art Museum world even now, there are lots of women directors in small and medium size museums but not in the big 6 museums.

Desai – We’re also still putting our heads in the sand – what’s the role of arts and culture in the world. Still seen as an add-on vs. a center.

Johnson – with conductors  there is the stereotype of the male conductor as screaming at musicians and that was seen as leadership. But no more will musicians accept that treatment. I think female conductors need to be leaders that combine male and female attributes (as all conductors should). A balanced sense of what leadership is wanted so there are more female conductors coming up, which is good. Just because we’re different doesn’t mean we’re less than as a leader.

Semmel – In Art Museums, search committees looking for women say that women were more focused on being balanced in management but didn’t seem to articulate a large vision. I don’t know what that was about – the women or the questions they were asked.

In hiring, men asked for many more perks than women did and professions that have been feminized are lower paid. Women need to speak up.

Johnson – I found that musicians and audiences did not have a problem with a women and a black being a conductor. The problem was with the people who were making the hiring decisions.

Singer, actor and producer comment – I too had good anger that pushed me to make changes and to put together a show to show gender equality. And in any programs people have, add in the arts, it adds value – add a violin and teach science of sound.

Delegate from Washington – thanks for reminding us of our stories because it connects us all.

Have you thought of ways to do collaboration with other disciplines? Performing as a child gave me confidence in other things.

Desai – Arts can transcend disciplines and cultures so we do need to talk more about that. Arts and culture should be at center of things because they connect disciplines so well. When I met with Obama I was only woman and only arts and culture person in the meeting to speak to him about an upcoming trip/meetings in India. I told him about 6000 year old traditions and the like and said the center of their politics is the culture. Obama stood up and said no one else ever said that before. I responded that’s because you don’t talk to people from arts and culture.

Delegate: Our Native American culture is so different from yours. We care about our men and feel there has been some male bashing here. Our challenges also include white privilege. What’s been your experience (to 2 women of color on panel) with white privilege?

Desai – Asian American women feel there are two ceilings – gender and culture. Even among women we might not be sensitive to culture issues, thinking that gender trumps it.

Johnson – culture plays a critical role in Orchestras too – we will play/see more from its European originators. So I make sure there is a visual diversity in my musicians.

Delegate – How mobilize to cultivate awareness of gender issues (since this is conversation about women) in governance of arts and culture?

Desai – we need to be inside subversives. Studies have shown that need three people of same gender or culture on board or in charge to make a difference.

Desai – Shift of power is headed toward Asian countries. Asia – Young Leaders Program – teaching young people how to be a leader in a changing world where America will not be the only leader in the world.

How to we convince people that working in the arts or being an artist is a real job?

Semmel -I think we’re in the creativity age not the tech age. The need for people who can come up with creative problem solvers is necessary. “Art Works” in the economy.

What agenda items do you see for the delegates ?

Vishakha N. Desai, Ph.D. -Have to recognize that arts and culture is at center of us as human beings and determine how do we use that.

Jeri Lynne Johnson -1. Equal pay for equal work. 2. Get women on boards of arts and cultures and connect women to each other. Make connections into networks.

Marsha L. Semmel – People looking for meaning in their world – arts and culture can help in Maaslow’s Hierarchy of Needs especially at apex. We must preserve our cultures.

We also need to break down silos and create new common areas that support differences.

About equalityinsight

Vision 2020 is a national coalition of organizations and individuals united in their commitment to achieve women’s economic and social equality. Join Vision 2020 today!
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